Iran | France | Germany | Switzerland | Luxembourg 2019
Opening June 18, 2020
Directed by: Massoud Bakhshi
Writing credits: Massoud Bakhshi
Principal actors: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Arman Darvish
Watching Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness is like stepping into another world. It is a world where prisoners with a death sentence are given one last chance for freedom on live TV, where an eye-for-an-eye is the foundation of laws, where sons are given inheritance over daughters, and where state control is felt in the most miniscule parts of day-to-day life. Director/screenwriter Massoud Bakhshi paints a bleak picture of modern Iran throughout, but while the film is taut with tension and quickly paced, there is a lack of depth which makes it fail to reach its full potential.
Yalda’s protagonist is a young woman named Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) who has been convicted of murdering her much older husband Nasser Zia. Maryam was the teenage daughter of Nassar’s driver, and she consented to a “temporary marriage” after considerable pressure from her family. The one rule was that she was not allowed to get pregnant, and when she did, events unfolded which led to Nassar’s death. Maryam has already served fifteen months on death row, but she has agreed to appear on a popular television show where she might find her sentence commuted. If Maryam gains enough sympathy from viewers, then the shows sponsors will pay for her blood money. The only other thing she needs is to convince Nasser’s adult daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) to forgive her and accept the money. This is easier said than done when new information comes to light which could make the whole situation far more complicated.
In many ways, Yalda feels to be a bit too shallow in its analysis to be a truly great take on such a wide variety of complicated and delicate cultural issues. It is unclear whether this is due to the influence of Iranian censorship or if it was a creative choice. There isn’t enough nuance nor personal self-examination by the characters to give audiences much to go on other than the fact that it will make Western viewers double down on their beliefs that Iranian culture is often backwards and horrifying. It seems doubtful that Bakhshi had this as his intention, yet by including so little of his own authorial voice, the result is that audiences must draw many of their own conclusions and criticisms. That being said, Yalda is a tense and entertaining drama which has the good intentions of trying to bring to light some of the very real struggles that Iranian women continue to face today. ()